Madeline Whitehead


Talking Volumes: Colson Whitehead

Nov. 3
7 p.m.

In reacting to his new novel, The Underground Railroad, reviewers and readers have made much of Colson Whitehead’s magical transformation of that network of desperate people, hidden places, mythology, and metaphor. But the story of Cora, who begins her life as a slave on a cotton plantation and finds her way out by riding those rails, is so much more than that. It’s also much more than an education in atrocities. Whitehead’s miraculous book is history novelized, and based in hard, incontrovertible truths that continue to be writ on black bodies and psyches in the 21st century. Whitehead blurs time and space as he interlaces the systemic and violent colonization of not-white people by whites — from the abominations of slavery to the sterilization of black women to the unwitting participants of syphilis experiments — as Cora grows from child to woman. “Know your value and you know your place in the order,” Cora is repeatedly reminded. In one harrowing scene, she slips: “Before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her,” she protects another child’s body with her own, and is not only beaten but further “peeled open the following sunrise.” Cora’s humanity, her worth, her smarts, and her tenacity make her a character of our political and cultural zeitgeist, and Whitehead’s book a resonant meditation on U.S. history.